By James Keller
It’s been unfortunately easy to fall for the hype surrounding The Passion of the Christ this past week, and this is to say nothing of the excessive violence, alleged anti-Semitism and anticipated public outcry surrounding Mel Gibson’s depiction of Jesus Christ’s final hours.
The hype I’m referring to is the reaction from the media in the form of editorials and reviews, the vast majority of which have been harshly critical and staunchly negative. The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen gave the film one single star, attacking it for not questioning Christ’s divinity or character. An editorial in the next day’s paper complained of “pornography of violence.” On CBC’s The Current, a commentator lambasted the film for glossing over the background of Christ’s life (the film begins immediately following the Last Supper and ends just prior to the resurrection).
Given the bad press, it was easy to walk in looking for any justification to write the movie off. Unfortunately–or fortunately, as the case may be–such a damning example is difficult to find.
The least critical and most effective criticism is against the assumptions made by the film–and there are many. Gibson assumes his audience has a working knowledge of the story of Christ. The movie makes no claims regarding the merits or impropriety of the crucifixion and makes no argument for Christ’s divinity. While important to note, this isn’t a fatal flaw.
Gibson made the movie for a Western (and, more specifically, a North American) audience, a sizeable portion of whom are at least partly familiar with Christian mythology. One doesn’t need to be a theologian to recognize the themes of sacrifice and symbols of divinity necessary to connect with the film.
Furthermore, given this requisite knowledge, Christ’s divinity doesn’t need to be questioned. Focusing on the Passion as an isolated event, this much must be assumed. Whether you believe this is of little consequence to understanding the plot, as long as you recognize it as a fundamental premise for Jesus’ character.
In many ways, The Passion, and the concept of Christ as a myth of Western civilization, isn’t about Jesus as an independent agent. The story of Christ, why it’s important, depends on his effect on others. To its credit, while the movie gives Jesus little in the way of dialogue (what more critics expected him to say is difficult to imagine), it offers an insightful glimpse into those around him.
Pontius Pilate is a deeply sympathetic character, transcending his popular image as an unforgiving subject of Caesar. Judas and Peter both face complex inner struggles as they turn their back on their so-called King, as does Mary while she helplessly watches her son being tortured and broken. Jesus is presented as a means to a greater end and this depiction is well enough for even non-Christians to connect to what is, dogma aside, a beautifully tragic story.
Lastly is the grave indictment that the film is nothing but pornographic violence, a claim that doesn’t injure the film as some would hope. Using such terminology is to take the violence out of context.
The Passion, while conveniently vague in the Bible, was a brutal and gory affair. Gibson’s depiction–shocking to say the least–comes nowhere near crossing the line. (It should be noted the film’s 18A rating is far too lenient, children should not see this movie as a matter of policy).
All the attention surrounding the film, from accusations of anti-Semitism (also misguided) to calling the violence pornographic and excessive, play into its marketing all too well. For The Passion, any publicity is good publicity, and it all complements a clever and invasive marketing campaign. The film offers sermons for pastors and priests that tie the film into their daily homilies, while official and unofficial memorabilia is peddled on the Internet, from coffee mugs to souvenir crucifixion nails.
These sorts of gimmicks represent the real pornography of violence connected to this film, glorifying and trivializing what is a profound Western myth and religious symbol, and marring what should be a powerful film on its own.